Cowan, 46, once had Cameron Bailey’s programming gig at the Toronto International Film Festival–he started as a programmer for the Midnight Madness program in 1989 and wound up as codirector with CEO Piers Handling– and in January resigned as founding artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox. That’s because Cowan is taking over the executive director spot at the San Francisco Film Society vacated by Ted Hope (now CEO at Fandor). Cowan will oversee the Film Society’s expanding programs in exhibition, education and filmmaker services, working closely with Director of Education Joanne Parsont, Director of Filmmaker360 Michele Turnure-Salleo, and The San Francisco International Film Festival’s Director of Programming Rachel Rosen (April 24–May 8, 2014).
When Hope announced he was leaving the SFFS, Cowan called him up, and they had a long chat. “I thought the job sounded interesting and Ted encouraged me to speak to the board,” Cowan says in a phone interview. “I’ve had the privilege over the last decade to focus on the artistic side of my field, and help to create exhibitions and film retrospectives and shape a major film festival. But increasingly I felt the need to return to the executive director chair to work on shaping an organization and really look to the future of what I’d like to see film become.”
The well-funded San Francisco Film Society, which mounts one of the world’s oldest annual film festivals, appealed to Cowan. “It’s had a huge impact on how Americans have consumed international art films, a tradition I would be happy to be part of. I’m walking into an organization that is doing really well, with opportunity for growth. This is a happy beginning. I can’t say enough about the staff, the high quality leaders in all programming areas.”
Over the next few years, Cowan wants to be thoughtful about what the future of festivals could be, “not in the sense of creating a new Toronto or Sundance, that’s not necessarily what the medium needs, there’s a lot of market fatigue,” he says. “More that festivals should try and present different alternative views of how they are presented to the public. We can explore throughout the Bay area, and think through innovative ways of making film come alive. The Bay area is full of innovators. We can try new things and have some fun.”
Cowan is not only excited to be back on comfortable festival turf, but is eager to dive into the SFFS’s innovative education and filmmaker support programs. Both areas are of great interest to him; he embarked on several new education programs at TIFF Lightbox, and was surprised to find that SFFS had engaged on many parallel tracks. Cowan looks forward to reaching out to such forward-thinking Bay area companies as Lucasfilm and Pixar as well as working with the SFFS education team on growing a more national profile. He sees San Francisco as a city with cultural similarities to Toronto, with a “diverse makeup and curiosity about global culture,” he says. “And it has a nerd factor which is a part of my personality and something I’m attracted to.”
While Cowan does not see himself as a Ted Hope, “who is a thought leader at the intersection of film and new media,” he says, “what I do know is that our fate as a medium, for film lovers and makers, is in the hands of these companies that moved from startups to content companies. Understanding their needs and how we fit into their business practice is a very important goal for any not-for-profit involved in cinema. We need to begin this conversation seriously, or film may get left behind in ways we wouldn’t like. We should be mindful and respectful of the scope of these companies, and continue to engage in conversations with tech leaders. It’s vital for our future. But I don’t know the end goal of those conversations. We can’t enter into that dialogue with pre-conceived notions. I am looking forward to meeting the appropriate interlocuters at those companies. It’s going to be fascinating.”
Equally exciting for Cowan is getting into Filmmaker360’s support of filmmakers, which will allow him to engage in production activity. Thus far he has been more of an arts administrator, programmer, educator, distributor, curator and exhibitor than active participant in the production process. So he’ll be checking out with different eyes the new crop of filmmakers. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than mentoring young talent.”
Over five years at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the cinema museum space in Toronto, Cowan supervised a $5-million annual budget and a staff of 30. He learned how to lure moviegoers to first-run programming, and curated a number of exhibitions including Grace Kelly and visual artists Yang Fudong and Candice Breitz, as well as major retrospectives related to the history of Chinese cinema and the Indian superstar Raj Kapoor. He and Handling curated the David Cronenberg exhibit that recently closed at the Lightbox’s HSBC Gallery at the Lightbox. Cowan was also responsible for a large educational portfolio, including the TIFF Cinematheque, the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, several student learning programs and large-scale collaborations between film and visual arts institutions around the world.
From 1997–2004 in New York, Cowan logged some real-world distribution experience at Cowboy Pictures, releasing international arthouse films, but returned to the Toronto Festival in 2004. In 2002, Cowan founded the Global Film Initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to worldwide understanding through film. In partnership with the Museum of Modern Art, the foundation funded, acquired, created, and distributed educational material for socially meaningful cinema from the developing world. He moved over to the new TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2008.
Cowan joins the San Francisco Film Society—now in its 57th year—during a period of expansion in each of its three main program areas: exhibition, education and filmmaker services. The San Francisco International Film Festival is the longest-running film festival in the Americas. Additional year-round exhibition programs include a Fall Season slate of specialized film series featuring the best work from France, Italy, Switzerland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the San Francisco Bay Area, and a range of public and members’ screenings and events.
The SFFS Education department produces year-round media literacy programs to over 10,000 K–12 learners, in addition to college and university programs that introduce students to careers in filmmaking. SFFS recently celebrated the launch of FilmEd, a new online community and toolkit that provides curricula and media to facilitate classroom instruction and connects filmmakers and educators across the globe.
Filmmaker360, the Film Society’s filmmaker services program, supports emerging independent filmmakers nationwide and oversees one of the largest film grant programs in the country, dispersing nearly $1 million annually to incubate and support innovative films and filmmakers. Recent Filmmaker360 success stories include recent festival hits such as Ira Sach’s “Love is Strange,” Kat Candler’s “Hellion,” Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters,” Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” and Zachary Heinzerling’s Oscar-nominated “Cutie and the Boxer” as well as Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 Best Picture nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”